College application essays: How to stop the lies

The best solution is to design an application process that reduces a student's ability to cheat or lie rather than just hoping they won't, and the most actionable step is fixing the essay.

Intelligent’s report exposing the extent to which college hopefuls lie on their applications has led many admissions officials to reflect on what they could do to promote better practices among potential students; specifically, what to do with the college essay.

When David Rettinger, an accomplished academic integrity researcher, discovered the report, he was “disappointed, but not even a little surprised.” In reports he conducted through the International Center for Academic Integrity, 70% of students admitted to some form of cheating during their college career, compared to the 61% who admitted adding untrue information to some part of their college application.

With a student population prone to cheating, Michele Sandlin from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers consulting extension is curious about what the real value of the essay is. She’s fielded complaints about the application essay for quite some time now, the reasoning always the same and completely legitimate: they’re vague, hard to score, and there are too many applications to sift through to verify the information. Large public universities can see up to 70,000 applications per year, according to Sandlin. Adding insult to injury, 34% of students claimed to write untrue stories.

“Do they have an enormous amount of time to check all this stuff? No, they don’t. They’re overwhelmed with applications,” she says.

This makes the essay portion ripe for students to take advantage of. There are second-review processes to check on things that don’t look right or don’t align with the rest of the application, but this happens rarely. And if a student does lie, what’s the consequence? Rettinger explained how students are motivated to lie because there is none.

“If you think about it from a student’s perspective, what’s their incentive for telling the truth? If they lie on their application, what happens when they get caught? The worst thing that happens is the thing that would have happened anyway: They won’t get in,” he said. “They’re not thinking of the bigger consequences—the cultural values.”

Rettinger, along with Michele Sandlin from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers consulting extension, believes the best solution is to design a process that reduces a student’s ability to cheat or lie rather than just hoping they won’t.

More from UB: Fresh student enrollment data suggests “encouraging” recovery

The remedy for the college essay problem that many schools are moving toward is asking shorter, more pointed prompts that test the experience a student listed. It’s not what experience they have, it’s what they learned.

“If you’re just getting a laundry list that’s not telling you how they’re involved, how they’re engaged, how they learned from it, those fake answers can get weeded out a lot more quickly,” she said. “A lot of the essay pieces have to do with how the questions are written, how descriptive they are, and the valuables you’re looking for in the response. We’re looking for deeper learning.”

Rettinger echoed something similar when he suggested applications should focus on asking questions that illicit what students can do rather than some checklist of what they’ve done.

Other portions of the application might be trickier to inhibit students from lying on though. For example, 39% of students confessed to misrepresenting their race or ethnicity, and Rettinger believes that may be due to students perceiving the application as unfair.

“Applicants have bought into this scenario that white people are being discriminated against in college admissions, and there are forces in our culture that are selling that story regardless of whether that’s true or not,” he said. “People are willing to excuse their own dishonesty when they believe the process is stacked against them. They see an exception to the rule about lying.”

Sandlin was surprised by the figures on ethnicity but found it important not to jump to conclusions.

“According to this survey, students are claiming they know they faked it or is it that our questions are too confusing and they’re picking the one that’s closest?” she said. “I would first ask ‘Are we asking the questions wrong? Can we be asking the questions differently?’ I would look internally.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

Most Popular